Letter writing is always a serious business – be it a letter of love, resignation, cease and desist – but Daniel Sharman’s letter proved more daunting than most. It was a letter of explanation; its recipient, a TV producer named Julie Plec, a “lovely, lovely woman” according to Sharman and also a very powerful one.
The year is 2014. Plec is showrunner of the hugely popular TV series The Vampire Diaries and its spinoff The Originals. Sharman has a recurring role in the latter’s second season, a role that Plec wishes to upgrade to a series regular. For Sharman, the promotion will mean more screen time, more money, and greater job security in this most capricious of industries. He’s 27 years old. He’s writing to Plec to explain why he has turned her offer down.
The exact copy stays between the parties concerned, but Sharman summarises the letter’s mood music as striking a note of gratitude. “I know this might be a really big mistake but I’d rather be penniless and at least feel like I’m proud of something… If I take this, I just know I’ll regret it.” He respected The Originals and his colleagues on the show; he understood it would be a dream job for many young actors. It just wasn’t the job for him.
Sharman’s letter was addressed to Julie Plec but he also wrote it to himself. He needed to work out what kind of actor he wanted to be; what kind of person he wanted to be. He had made some progress on the former question: he knew he didn’t want to be an actor who played the enigmatic love interest in supernatural teen dramas.
But what did he want? And how could he attain it?
He’d moved to Los Angeles from London in 2011 after a string of unsuccessful auditions, a soul-destroying succession of nearly but not quites, ‘if it wasn’t for the other guy then you’d be the obvious choice’. LA had brought loneliness and self-doubt and an illegal job in a sushi restaurant and more unsuccessful auditions, 16 billboards that almost had his face on them.
Instead they bore the many different faces of the other guy, who appeared to have followed him across the pond and attained an American accent. (Although sometimes he still had a British accent, which made his success even more galling.)
Circumstances improved. He signed to a talent agency and landed a recurring role in a major supernatural teen TV series – not The Originals but Teen Wolf. Sharman played werewolf heartthrob Isaac Lahey (a teen wolf, not the Teen Wolf) from 2012 to 2014. He left the show after two seasons. “He told me he wanted to try other things,” said showrunner Jeff Davis of Sharman’s departure.
Did those other things include playing the vampire heartthrob Kol Mikaelson? No, not really. But work is work, even if it wasn’t the work he envisaged when he left drama school. (Technically, he played the witch heartthrob Kaleb Westphall who was possessed by the spirit of Kol Mikaelson.) He clocked up a season and he was offered the opportunity to spend the next few years doing something he really didn’t want to do. So he wrote Julie Plec a letter and threw himself into the unknown.
Plec understood. She wrote what Sharman describes as a “lovely email” in reply and had his character cursed to death by his evil older brother. Hey, it’s a vampire show; it would have been easy to bring Sharman back if he’d asked to return, but he never did.
A Town Called Malice
Nearly a decade after Sharman wrote that letter, I meet him at The Roost in Dalston. The Roost is a photo studio that started life as a Victorian pub and now resembles the haunted mansion of the Mad Hatter. Spread over three floors, you will find a bed surrounded by hundreds of dusty old books, a standing bathtub situated beside a bench, mounted animal heads, bright red scooters, florid wallpaper everywhere and an eclectic collection of furniture offering postural discomfort in a variety of different forms. I’d like to live there; you can hire it out for your nuptials or birthday party.
Once the shoot is completed, Sharman and I sit down in a sparse little room on the first floor, empty except for a couple of chairs and a slightly faded chaise longue. It could be the study of a therapist fallen on hard times. We take the chairs.
Sharman is tall, angular, soft spoken. He’s 36 but could pass for a decade younger – there’s something of the university student in his quiet intelligence, albeit a student who spends Saturday night reading improving books in the library rather than knocking back shots at Vodka Revolution.
He isn’t remotely a hardman – hence his casting in A Town Called Malice, an operatic crime thriller created by Nick Love. Love is a writer who’s defied nominative determinism to forge a successful career chronicling violent tales of hard, hard men, usually either football hooligans or gangsters. The Business, The Football Factory, Outlaw, The Firm, The Sweeney – rom-coms these ain’t, aside from Love’s ongoing romance with the definite article.
A Town Called Malice is gangsters. It is also Love’s first foray into TV, trading a smaller screen for wide ambitions. Set in the 1980s – and boy, does the soundtrack let you know it – our protagonists are the Lord family, former rulers of the South London crime scene who have fallen on times even harder than they are. Following a gangland brawl, the family flee Bermondsey for the Costa Del Sol and attempt to build another illegal empire in the sun. Expect violence, dodgy dealing, plot twists and musical numbers.
Filming mainly took place in Tenerife, although Sharman, an LA resident, relished the London detour and his escape from a Californian heatwave. “I come back with this romantic notion: ‘Oh, how nice to have seasons and cold!’ And then I spent two nights shooting under a bridge in Deptford.”
He describes an experience more akin to a yoga retreat than a lads’ tour. “I experienced one of the most open, vulnerable and deepest connections I’ve had on a show. It all filters down from Nick employing people who are really vulnerable and are able to be emotionally intelligent and able to share. I was really blown away by how that felt.”
Here is Nick Love on Sharman’s performance as Kelly Lord: “Daniel brought plausibility and empathy to the role of Kelly. That’s not easy to do in a heightened show like Malice. It’s easy for these types of characters to slip into the caricatures we have seen many times. But to play him in a nuanced and subtle way, as Daniel has done, is much harder.”
Kelly is the difficult middle child, the family black sheep. (And my word, you’ve gotta work hard to be the black sheep of the Lord family.) The first time we meet Kelly, ten minutes into episode one, he’s been stabbed in the shoulder by a rival gang. (“It’s a fucking scratch, boy,” growls Jason Flyming’s fearsome patriarch, cuffing his son on the cheek.) The second time we meet Kelly, at the opening of episode three, he’s rocking eyeshadow and a mink coat as he sings along to pro-rock band Marillion in a shipping container.
Sharman refers to Kelly as “an agent of chaos” and “pathological liar” – a wannabe hardman in thrall to his own delusions. “He has his own world that he’s built up. What’s lovely about watching from a Kelly-centric point of view is seeing how his entire world is taken apart in the space of the series.” For his actor, Kelly is a figure of sympathy. “In a family of massive personalities, you realise his only choice was to start lying, show bravado, wear as many ostentatious clothes as possible.” Sharman’s affection for Kelly is obvious.
“I had wrongly imagined Dan might be tricky – having been working and making a name for himself in Hollywood,” admits Love. He notes that Sharman took a risk: “Daniel took the role when the character was still being developed. He could have spent a few months feeling frustrated as an actor, because the role could have been fairly secondary. But once we started to dig into the character, I quickly made him central to the show.”
Sharman believes the flamboyant Kelly might have trod an artistic path, “if circumstances had been different.” (Perhaps if he didn’t have Jason Flyming as his dad.) The garish clothes, the extrovert behaviour that hides a roiling mass of insecurities. “There’s just a deep desire for validation. I don’t want to admit this but it is probably too close to home in some way.”
Acting came for Daniel Sharman at a young age, visiting his primary school in the guise of the Royal Shakespeare Company. There were auditions; the kids were asked to imagine themselves in their own world. Sharman had already spent nine years pretending to be in his own world. “This is fucking easy,” he remembers thinking. “I’ll do this all day.”
The artifice of theatre prevented any nerves. Pretending to be someone else came easily to him; he describes himself as a “wreck” when giving the best man’s speech at his brother’s wedding. On stage he might be a prince, a page, a ghost – but never Daniel. “Even as a ten year old, I’m in this little bubble of creativity, which kind of insulates you.”
His parents aren’t actors – mum’s a doctor, dad in local politics – and Sharman doubts he would have found the profession if it hadn’t found him. “I was quite shy, introverted. I don’t think I would’ve done plays at school.” He might have been a painter, gone to art school. He might have gone into business. Who can say? “Maybe I’d have been more… put together. I don’t know. It’s quite a weird thought.”
He makes a remarkably open interviewee. Struggles with addiction, past heartbreaks, feelings of professional inadequacy – subjects that you would not blame him in the slightest for dodging are discussed with disarming honesty and eloquence. This openness will be a legacy of his Two Lads podcast, recorded with the music producer Christian ‘Leggy’ Langdon, the two friends exploring everything from sex to drugs to shame through the prism of their own experiences. When you’ve mused how the failure of a past relationship partially stemmed from your relationship with your mother, and uploaded those musings onto Spotify, chatting to a journalist is practically small talk.
He isn’t intense. He isn’t one of those emotionally charged people who’ll respond to a “nice weather we’re having” with a mournful diatribe on how sunny days negatively impact their mental health owing to the terrible inevitability of rain. He’ll talk football or books or movies quite happily with you – not every conversation is a therapy session. (He has his therapist for that.) He’s one of those rare people willing to give themselves up entirely. If that takes him to a place of vulnerability then so what?
Here’s a good example of what I mean. Ten minutes into our interview, I check the red light on the voice recorder: is this thing working? I do this almost every interview because the voice recorder not working is the standard journalistic nightmare, our equivalent of delivering a speech to the packed school hall sans clothes. Supposedly the actor’s nightmare is blanking on stage; addressing the audience with “To be or… ah, shit.” More than one actor has told me this.
“I sleepwalk,” says Sharman.
Really? Really. “I dream I’m on stage, so I get changed for a scene – I’ll get up, put on something. Sometimes I’ll go to a door and try to open it.” The habit dates back to his teenage role in The Winslow Boy, where his character spent the third act asleep. “I would try and listen for a line, but sometimes I would fall asleep for real.” Two decades later and his dreams are still haunted by cues that will never come. He even stuck a sign above his bed: ‘If you’re seeing this, you’re not on stage.’
“I still have dreams, usually when I’m filming, where I’ll do an action repeatedly as if someone’s gone: ‘Cut! Let’s do you getting out of bed again…’ So I’ll get back into bed and then get back up.” Sometimes the catalyst is more obscure: such as the night he sat up in bed and exclaimed, “It’s time to take over the Asian market!” much to the confusion of his then-partner. He can’t explain why he wanted to take over the Asian market, or how he would have set about doing so.
He attended drama school – LAMDA – and worked the theatre circuit after graduation, taking on as many roles as possible. “It’s really scary for people coming out of drama school because everyone’s just thrown to the wolves,” says Sharman. “All of us were broke and a bit terrified. And then the financial crash happened. Everyone was like, ‘there goes that.’”
Sharman persevered. He kept landing auditions for major projects; kept reaching the final pair; kept losing out to the other guy. (Remember him?) The loss that hurt the most, the one that ultimately changed his life because it didn’t? That would be getting pipped by Douglas Booth for the 2010 Boy George biopic Worried About The Boy.
He’d all but been promised the role. When his agent phoned with the bad news, the disappointment was so intense it triggered an out-of-body experience. He remembers staring at the carpet, bereft, his agent’s voice in his ear, his mind somewhere else entirely. He couldn’t believe that he’d lost out on another one. “I was going, ‘Yeah, no it’s fine. It’s fine.’ Inside I’m dying of course.”
It proved a pivotal moment. He couldn’t bear another phone call, another staring match with the carpet. In 2011, Daniel Sharman flew to Los Angeles to chase a dream that refused to be caught in London. He wanted a new start in the City of Angels.
His demons flew out with him.
Take on me
In many respects, Sharman’s relocation to America proved a major success. He landed a couple of big TV shows. Raised his profile, and burnished his bank account. Made friends for life. Not a bad return, considering he arrived with nothing, knew nobody, spent months bed hopping and couch surfing as he searched for gainful employment. He bought a scooter and rode it to auditions, a tiny helmet his only protection against the roaring freeways, the endless stream of vehicles that knew exactly where they were going and how they were getting there.
“It all seemed like a good idea at the time. If anyone says to me, ‘Would you move out to LA now?’ God, no way. I wouldn’t have the fortitude to do it. Some days I couldn’t eat. Some days I couldn’t afford the bus. I’m just too old for that now. I couldn’t hack that.”
Loneliness haunted his early years in LA. Pilot season was overwhelming, the first few months of the year in which hundreds of wannabe actors and writers descend on Hollywood in the hope of getting their projects greenlit or starring in somebody else’s. He screen-tested for a number of huge franchises – The Hunger Games one of many – and became terrified by the sudden proximity to stardom. “It felt like being taken up to the big leagues. And I found the whole thing really scary; I don’t think I was ready.”
After another failed screentest – the 16th in total, and you’d be counting, too – the Arsenal-supporting Sharman texted his brother with an analogy. “It’s like being in the Champions League final and just losing repetitively. Must be like being a Spurs fan.” (His therapist refers to ‘Arsenal syndrome’ – the sense it’s never gonna work out. With 2023 looking like the year it might finally work out for Arsenal, the therapist began encouraging Sharman to take inspiration from the team’s brilliant form. Then they promptly lost to Everton.)
He was working illegally in a sushi restaurant when Teen Wolf came up. It wasn’t the kind of show that he wanted to do but you can only make artistic choices if those choices are being offered to you. He needed a visa, his life was increasingly unmoored. He hid from himself in sex and drugs. “I was in a really odd and quite difficult place. I’d gotten to the point where I was like, I’ll just take anything. It’s better than not working.”
It should be stressed that Sharman speaks highly of Teen Wolf and his love for his former colleagues. He never considered the job beneath him, still appreciates its role in his journey. “I owe a lot to it. I owe a lot to Jeff Davis and I owe a lot to the friendships that I’ve formed. I owe the fans of it a lot. I was in a really rough place in my life and it gave me a community and it gave me experience. It gave me money. It gave me a way out of some of the addiction that I was in.”
He left Teen Wolf after two seasons. Did a season on The Originals, another show that wasn’t really him but offered money and validation, two commodities not easily rejected. It’s not easy rejecting anything in his industry. “It’s very hard for any actor to pick and choose,” says Sharman. “That’s quite a rare position. If you take a stand, it might be two or three years before you work again.”
The year 2016 brought his 30th birthday and, in Sharman’s words, “a kind of mental breakdown.” His career wasn’t where he wanted it to be: I’m supposed to be a respectable actor not a teen star. He wasn’t the person that he wanted to be, medicating with various forms of addiction. “I’m none of the things I thought I would be. And I’m nowhere near achieving this idea of being valued in the way that I would want to be valued.”
The stuff that was supposed to alleviate the pain only worsened it. For a few months, “I went really dark. Really, really dark.” Then he got sober. “I just hit a point where I went, ‘I’m so tired of lying and I’m so tired of the bravado’. And I wondered what it would look like to not medicate it.”
It wasn’t easy, obviously it wasn’t easy, but sobriety brought about a long overdue confrontation with reality. He began to reconcile the Daniel Sharman in his head with the Daniel Sharman in the mirror. One was perfect; the other happened to exist. He’s been working on the latter ever since.
A few weeks after our photoshoot, I catch up with Sharman over Zoom. He’s in Savannah, Georgia, filming a project that can’t be disclosed. No matter: Sharman is never short of conversation and our scheduled 15 minutes becomes the best part of an hour. We talk more about A Town Called Malice, his excitement at working with Nick Love, the gorgeous day spent filming with Jack Rowan swapping stories in an open-top orange Citroën in the middle of the desert. One of those days that justifies all the bad ones. “You’re just like, ‘Oh, this is brilliant, man. This is a gift.’”
Work has been good for a while now. Recent years brought major roles as Troy Otto in Fear the Walking Dead and the formidable Lorenzo de’ Medici in Medici: The Magnificent. (There was also the aptly-named Arthurian retelling Cursed, cancelled after one season, but nobody wins ’em all.) Now Malice has finally brought him back to British TV.
What of his personal life? Aged 33, Sharman went through a breakup, a bad one. One of those breakups that trigger not only emotional devastation but a complete reevaluation of the self and your past actions and the utter impossibility of future happiness due to the person you’ve lost and the person you are. One of those ones. For years she had been a fixed point in his existence: “This was the first time that I felt like someone was a stability. It was a stable force in my life.”
That stability had gone. He was alone: not as alone as when he’d moved to LA a decade earlier, with no family, friends or partner, but also more alone because he’d known what it was not to be so. “I couldn’t find any support. I couldn’t find anything that felt like someone was going, as a man: ‘I know how you feel and this is really painful and here’s some help.’
“There’s this idea of a chick flick, this idea of women really banding around one another during breakups, and so it feels socially more acceptable to be a woman and go through heartbreak. There isn’t a lot of support for men. We tend to feel heartbreak differently – it isn’t quite on the surface as much but it’s massive and it’s devastating. And it changes your whole reality.”
He examined his life. He attended a 12-step programme for sex and love. He undertook a period of abstinence. He confronted the whispers that sound so plausible in your head but faintly ridiculous when stated aloud – either to someone else or just yourself.
“Part of the process of healing is you have to voice all the fears. ‘I’m never going to be OK again. I’ve fucked up my life. This was the one good thing in my life and now it’s gone. I don’t know how to be happy.’ All of those things become reality in your mind; you have to say them.”
A friend was also suffering from a recent breakup. A music producer named Christian Langdon; the pair grew close through what Sharman wryly describes as “trauma bonding.” In summer 2021, Sharman and Langdon started the Two Lads podcast to explore the big issues and maybe create the type of support network that Sharman hadn’t been able to find for himself.
The first six episode titles were: ‘The Work’, ‘Love’, ‘Sex’, ‘Breakups’, ‘Psychedelics’, ‘Shame’. The lads recorded from a place of curiosity, freely sharing their own traumas and shortcomings; the listening experience is akin to eavesdropping on a therapy session or a particularly frank conversation down the pub. “We’re not experts. We’re students,” says Sharman. “We’re talking about these things almost from a point of ‘Bloody hell, this is hard! This is hard work!’ We’ve got a lot of things wrong and we don’t know a lot of things.”
They did 26 episodes, with no more planned. “It was a moment in time,” says Sharman. “The second you think you know what you are saying, or when you think you can preach or say what’s true, that’s when it’s probably time to not do it.” If the podcast sounds like something you’d enjoy, or you wish to extend your knowledge of Sharman beyond this profile, then I’d encourage you to have a listen. Maybe start with ‘Breakups’.
How soon is now?
At the time of writing, Sharman is single, sober and content. “It has been a really interesting learning period,” he says. “I’m certainly a relationship person, but being out of that and being able to find things that are for me is quite a nice place. Although, you know, it’s a lonely world out there. Finding a good group of friends and calling them incessantly is kind of my new MO.”
Sleepwalking is still happening: he had a dream the night before our call in which he thought his hand was tied to the side of the room. Then he discovered he’d gotten up. “Always happens when I’m working,” he
notes, but at least it means he’s working.
He stays busy with “things that keep my pretty crazy brain out of trouble.” These include playing football, learning Spanish, seeking out chess games on YouTube, “which is a pretty worrying new trait.” He rarely plays, just watches the explanatory videos, fascinated by the strategy and skill.
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His mentality for the next few years is to surrender himself to whatever comes rather than worry about what hasn’t yet. In life, says Sharman, “you show up, do your best and the results aren’t up to you. That actually feels like a huge relief.” All the big stuff tends to happen when you’re making other plans. He will return to London someday but otherwise there’s no roadmap. “I’m quite into the surrender experiment.” And 40? “At 40, I’ll probably try and grow up a little bit.”
Jiu-jitsu is another passion of his. He loves the challenge, the journey from hopeless to not-quite-so hopeless. Improvements so incremental you often don’t even notice them in the moment. “For the first year, you have to accept that you’re just gonna get battered, literally battered. And there’s nothing more humbling and disheartening than someone half your age making you a meat pretzel and you can’t get out of it.
“You think, ‘I’m never gonna get through this, never!’ And then you kind of do.”
A Town Called Malice will be released on Sky Max and NOW from 16 March 2023.